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Students take their knowledge worldwide

October 22, 2009

Two UW-River Falls students will soon be embarking on trips that will take them to both ends of the globe, all in the name of physics.

Junior Kyle Jero and senior Drew Anderson, both physics and math double majors, will be participating in an international research coalition dubbed IceCube. The coalition consists of more than 30 educational and research institutions, about half of which are based in the U.S. UWRF has been involved in the program since 1998. 

Jero and UW-Rock County student Samantha Jakel depart for Sweden at the end of October to help prepare the Russian icebreaker Oden for its trip from Sweden to Uruguay, Jero said.

Anderson will then fly to Sweden and leave on the Oden Nov. 20.  Anderson will be aboard the Oden for three to four weeks as the ship makes its way to Uruguay, he said.

Once the ship arrives in Uruguay, Jakel will take Anderson’s place and travel to Argentina. The Oden will then make the journey to Antarctica and arrive in February.

“I have to go through Australia and New Zealand,” Jero said. “If the weather’s good, we make the flight over to Antarctica and get on the ship.”

Jero’s trip back to South America will end in Chile and take roughly a month, depending on weather and ice conditions, he said.

The purpose of IceCube is to collect information regarding extremely high energy bursts of particles called neutrinos, or cosmic rays.  These energy bursts can come from the sun or major galactic events such as supernova explosions or black holes. Information gained from studying the cosmic rays is then applied to theories that help gain a better understanding of the makeup of the universe.

Earl Blodgett, chair of the UWRF physics department, said the students travel such distances to test the cosmic rays at different points of the earth’s magnetic field. The vast majority of these rays are prevented from ever reaching the earth’s surface because of its magnetic field. At the poles, however, many more rays are able to reach the earth, therefore providing optimum testing conditions. 

Jim Madsen, a colleague of Blodgett’s in the physics department, explained the reasoning behind the locations further. When the cosmic rays come in contact with the earth, they create a flash of light invisible to the naked eye, he said.  In order to best record the light, sensors must be placed deep within a clear substance, up to two-thirds of a mile down. The ice in Antarctica provides such an environment. 

Though these tests have been conducted in the open ocean, Madsen said Antarctica is the best place to do the work.

“It’s actually most reasonable cost-wise to work in the ice,” he said. “Ice presents fewer problems than water at that depth.  While it’s cold at the South Pole, it’s kind of a uniform environment.”

Aboard the Oden, the research team attempts to recreate the ice conditions with a 500 gallon tub of ice. This allows them to see different energy particles as they travel north to south, Madsen said.

“Our job is to take the data we collect and make sure it stays consistent and graph it,” Anderson said. 

Along with helping scientists become more knowledgeable about the universe, the work also has immediate practical applications, Madsen said.

“Studying these particles helps us learn more about Solar flares, which can give off large amounts of these particles and damage satellites,” he said.

Jero has been to both Sweden and Antarctica on similar research trips during his time at UWRF, he said. Those trips helped prepare him for his upcoming venture.

“All the medical testing that’s required to travel to Antarctica is unbelievable,” Jero said. “I thought they’d just hand me an orange suit and tell me to stay away from the water, but it’s a lot more intense.”

The trip is funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, with private contributors from both Sweden and Germany, according to the program’s Web site.

Madsen was instrumental in getting the students involved with the IceCube program.

“These are really unique opportunities,” he said. “I think there’s less than two dozen students that have done research [for IceCube] in Antarctica and two of them have been from River Falls.”

“I like to refer to it as an extreme field trip,” Blodgett said.